How do you spell Eight?

As teachers, we choose our words and, in the process, construct the classroom worlds for our students and ourselves. The worlds we construct offer opportunities and constraints. — Peter Johnson, Opening Minds

What do you say when a hard working six-year-old working on ClickN Spell asks “how do you spell eight?” That’s an easy one for the pros I work with. But for me, it’s hard, so I stall for time.

I want to say something like “Eight. E-I-G-H-T. Eight. Now you try it.” That would be helpful, yes?

Except a lifetime of moments like this would be disempowering. One moment like this is disempowering.  My “help” would become something else: a reason to give up, an opportunity to avoid struggling with a challenging task, or worse, a reason to never try at all. Why try when the magic man with all the answers is standing right next to you?

Instead, I stall for time and practice something else I’m not yet good at: I ask for help from someone who has done this many times before.  “Encourage him to keep working at it. Remind him of a time when he struggled with accomplishing something else. Ask him how it felt to accomplish something he struggled with. And just sit with him while he works through the problem if he needs that.”

So I do this, referencing a short video we watched earlier in the day in which Thomas Edison tried and failed 10,000 times before trying just once more to invent a functional light bulb.

And that worked. Sort of. He tried a few times. Then he rebooted: “Maybe if I restart this program it will give me an easier word. Drat. It’s the same words. An. At. …. Ate.”  So much for eight.  And I learn one more lesson today:  Don’t assume a child that writes “ehet” is attempting to spell eight. Not only would my spelling “help” have been disempowering, it would also have been misspelled.


Taking Power from a Six-Year-Old

“.. your average classroom is more like a little Kremlin …. It’s more like totalitarianism than democracy. There are bells and PA systems and student cards and hall passes and classrooms where you listen day in and day out to authoritarian voices. … one researcher… found that less than two percent of instructional time was spent on discussions requiring students to offer an opinion about something. Another investigator  … came away with the conclusion that schools don’t prepare children to become even informed citizens, not to mention active ones.”

— David Guterson, Family Matters.

It’s the first week in the ground floor studio at Acton and 3 provisional rules have been stipulated:

  • Treat the studio as a sacred place,
  • Speak only with kindness and truth
  • Do not disturb others or yourself.

After much discussion, the Eagles decide to add one other: “Be diligent in your work and help others as needed.”

Over the next several days, these provisional guardrails will be battle tested. They may be discarded, amended, or revised and extended by a mixed age group of Eagles ranging in age from 6 to 11. The Eagles have discussed the fairness of deciding by majority rule, the alternative of super majorities, the value of deliberative discussion, and the difficulty of reaching unanimity. And the Eagles themselves will decide, by a ⅔ vote, how to amend and revise these provisional guardrails into a relational covenant they will live and learn by for the remainder of the year.  

This is not a little Kremlin.


There are no hall passes. You don’t have to ask for permission. And if you do ask, the authorities will not are not likely to answer.  You’ll have to figure it out for yourself.  Anything else is disempowering.

I answered too many questions last week. Taking power from a six-year-old is easy. Granting it is also easy. But guiding them to earn it? Arranging for them to demand responsibility? That is a delicate matter.